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24 Famous Boston Firsts

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Given that it’s located just 40 miles from Plymouth Rock, that the city of Boston is the home to many American “firsts” is hardly surprising. What is remarkable is the sheer variety of places, procedures, and thingamajigs that originated in Beantown. Here are 24 of them.


More than 370 years before Massachusetts put a statewide kibosh on smoking in enclosed public spaces and workplaces, Boston’s legislators let their anti-smoking stance be known. In 1632, the Massachusetts General Court put a ban on smoking in public places; in 1635, they outlawed the sale of tobacco. Unfortunately, neither action stuck—both laws were repealed in 1638. Fun, albeit unrelated, fact: from 1659 to 1681, Boston lawmakers also put a ban on celebrating Christmas!


In addition to being one of the city’s most photographed locations, Boston Common is also one of the country’s most historic al fresco spots, as it is America’s first public park. In 1634, colonists purchased the 44-acre space for the whopping price of 30 pounds. Originally utilized as a place for grazing cattle, the Common would come to adopt various other purposes over the years, including becoming the go-to spot for public hangings and a camp for British troops just before the American Revolution, before becoming the popular greenspace it is today. 


Not to be outdone, in 1859—225 years after Boston Common was established—land was set aside for what would become the country’s first public garden, the aptly named Public Garden. Located adjacent to Boston Common, the flora-and-fauna-filled public space serves as the backdrop for numerous weddings. And is also where you can hop aboard one of the city’s famous Swan Boats (which first set sail in 1877). 


In 1635, the Boston Latin School was founded as the first public school in America, which welcomed boys from every social strata. In 1972, more than 300 years after its opening, Boston Latin accepted its first female students. The school, which is still in operation, counts Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock among its alumni. (Benjamin Franklin was a dropout.)


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In 1636, one year after Boston Latin opened its doors, Boston kept its focus on education moving when the country’s first college was established in Cambridge with a little school known as Harvard (originally Harvard College, now Harvard University). You may have heard of it—eight U.S. Presidents have earned degrees there. 


Two years after Harvard welcomed its first class of students, Boston welcomed a revolutionary new device: a printing press. In 1638, Reverend Joseph Glover, his wife, and his trusty assistant, Stephen Daye, brought some printing equipment from England to America with the plan of setting up a printing shop in the colonies. When Glover died at sea, his widow took over the press and Daye took over the operation. “The first thing printed was the freemen's oath; the next was an almanac made for New England by Mr. William Pierce, mariner; the next was the Psalms newly turned into verse," then-Governor John Winthrop stated at the time. A few years later, Mrs. Glover married the president of Harvard, Henry Dunster, and the printing press became his property, which he transferred to the school. And so began the publishing business in America.


Fifty-two years after the first printing press was set up, Boston also published the country’s first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestik, in 1690. Sure, its title was clunky, but it got the job done—until publisher Benjamin Harris had the audacity to preconceive the whole “freedom of the press” concept and report that England’s military forces had formed an alliance with “miserable” savages, a story that led to him being forced to fold the operation four days later. In 1704, the first regularly published American newspaper, The Boston News-Letter, also got off the ground in Beantown.


Taking a cue from the European tradition of utilizing cafes and taverns as mail depositories, Richard Fairbanks’ Boston tavern became the country’s first post office in 1639. And while it may have been too early to have one of those fun automated machines you see today, colonial letter-posters had at least one distinct advantage over us: beer! 

Boston can also take half the credit for the first U.S. mail route. In 1673, New York Governor Francis Lovelace established a monthly mail route to run between New York and Boston. Though the service didn’t last long, the route that was traveled—known still as Old Boston Post Road—is littered with historic landmarks that you can visit today. 



In 1639, Boston co-founder and then-Governor John Winthrop made some detailed notes in his journal about a rather strange incident that would come to be known as the country’s first UFO sighting. “In this year, one James Everell, a sober, discreet man, and two others, saw a great light in the night at Muddy River,” Winthrop wrote. “When it stood still, it flamed up, and was about three yards square; when it ran, it was contracted into the figure of a swine: it ran as swift as an arrow towards Charlton [Charlestown], and so up and down [for] about two or three hours. They were come down in their lighter about a mile, and, when it was over, they found themselves carried quite back against the tide to the place they came from. Diverse and other credible persons saw the same light, after, about the same place.” Take that, Roswell. 


Alice Thomas is not the kind of pioneering woman you likely learned about in your grade school history class, and with good reason: her claim to fame is that she founded America’s first known house of prostitution in 1672, an occupation that earned her the nickname “Massachusetts Bay Madam.”


Originally built in 1716, Boston Light—located on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor—is America’s first lighthouse. Though the original structure was overtaken and eventually destroyed by British troops during the American Revolution, it was rebuilt in 1783 and has stood as a beacon of tribute to the city’s history ever since.


As far back as 1765, chocolate was unofficially considered a staple of the American diet—which is when John Hannon opened the country’s first chocolate factory. It sold blocks of chocolate that could be ground and mixed into boiling water for drinking. In 1780, James Baker took over the company and really helped to brand Baker’s Chocolate. The factory remained within the Baker family until 1895; today, it’s a division of Kraft Foods. 


Thanks to Boston’s Museum of African American History, you can still pay a visit to the Abiel Smith School, the first school built specifically for the education of black children in 1835. The Beacon Hill museum also provides access to the African Meeting House, the oldest standing church built by free black citizens in 1806 (and a National Historic Landmark). The structures are two of the final stops on the Black Heritage Trail. 


If there’s one thing New England has an abundance of—at least in the winter months—it’s snow and ice. This gave budding Boston entrepreneur Frederic Tudor an idea: Why not package the cold stuff and ship it off to much warmer climates where it could be used for myriad purposes, from cooling drinks to comforting sick patients? And so, in 1806, with the help of his brother William, Frederic set up the Tudor Ice Company and began shipping it around the world, thus inventing a market for, well, ice. No wonder they called him “The Ice King.”


After visiting Paris’ Royal Institution for the Young Blind, the world’s first school dedicated to the education of blind children, Dr. John Fisher returned to America determined to create a similar establishment at home. In 1832, the Perkins School for the Blind (then known as the New England Asylum for the Blind) opened its doors to students for the first time, operating out of the Boston family home of its first director, Samuel Gridley Howe. In 1912, the school relocated to its current campus in nearby Watertown, from where it now helps to develop programs for Perkins institutions and affiliates in more than 60 countries. 


In 1630, Boston was home to the first system of law enforcement in America, with watchmen and constables. Two hundred years later, England introduced a new concept to the world: a dedicated police force. Created as a way to prevent crime, and not just respond to it, Philadelphia tested out the practice in 1833 with an independent police force. But it was the city of Boston that established the first true police force, one that was set up with day police and a night watch, in 1838.


Founded in 1848, the Boston Public Library is the country’s first major free municipal library. After opening in a former schoolhouse on March 20, 1854 (with approximately 16,000 books in its collection), the BPL relocated to Copley Square in 1895, to a building that architect Charles Follen described as a “palace for the people.” It is still the BPL’s home to this day. 


City of Boston Archives, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

On the morning of September 1, 1897, more than 100 people arrived at Boston’s Park Street train station to be the first commuters in the country to ride on what was then a brand-new mode of transport: a subway. By the end of the day, more than 100,000 people would get to experience a subway ride for the very first time. 


One need look no further than the stadium in which the New England Patriots play to understand the importance the Gillette name holds in the Boston area. But it’s a biggie to the world at large as well, as it was King Camp Gillette and MIT grad William Nickerson who successfully developed the first disposable razor blade in 1901, and revolutionized the art of shaving. 


In 1903, the very first World Series took place, in which the Boston Americans were pitted against (and beat) the Pittsburgh Pirates. Maybe their hometown advantage helped as four of the series’ games (including the first three) were played on Boston’s home turf. 


The National Hockey League (NHL) was hardly a brand-new outfit when the Boston Bruins joined up with them in 1924 (it was founded in 1917). But what made the team’s introduction into the league so monumental is that they were the first American NHL team. The Chicago Blackhawks joined up in 1926.


On December 23, 1954, Doctors Joseph Murray and David Hume completed the first living-related organ transplant when they transplanted a kidney from Ron Herrick into his twin brother, Richard, at Boston’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now Brigham and Women’s). Eight years later, Murray and Hume completed the same surgery, but this time utilizing the kidney of a deceased donor. In 1990, Murray was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in the transplantation field. 


Boston was the site of yet another medical breakthrough in 2006, when a team of 16 specialists performed heart surgery on Grace VanDerwerken—while she was a fetus still in utero. Their job was to thread a lifesaving stent, which they completed successfully at Children’s Hospital Boston. “It's been a miracle,” Grace's mother, Angela VanDerwerken, said at the time. “She has an amazing outcome now.” 


In 2008, construction worker Dallas Wiens suffered severe burns to his head when a piece of machinery he was operating crashed into a power line. Three years later, following 22 surgeries to smooth out his skin and prepare for surgery, the 25-year-old became the first person to successfully undergo a full face transplant in America, which took place at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Burn Center. “Fifteen years ago a face transplant was science fiction,” Wiens told ABC affiliate WFAA. “What's going to happen in the next 15 years? I've got a lot of life left.”

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Photograph by James Ewing. Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY
A New Exhibit Celebrates New York City's Public Art Legacy
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Photograph by James Ewing. Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

Walking through New York City could be likened to strolling through a smog-filled gallery. For the past 50 years and more, artists have brightened its streets, subways, and buildings with vibrant mosaics, installations, sculptures, and murals. To celebrate their creativity—and the pioneering public art initiatives that made these works possible—the Museum of the City of New York has created a new exhibit, "Art in the Open: Fifty Years of Public Art."

"Art in the Open" features over 125 works by artists such as Kara Walker, Keith Haring, and Roy Lichtenstein, among others, all of which once graced the city's five boroughs. The exhibit explores the social and historical motivation behind outdoor art, and also connects it with overarching urban themes.

“The ubiquity of public art is a big part of what makes New York City so special,” said Museum of the City of New York director Whitney Donhauser in a statement. “From parks to the subways, from Staten Island to the Bronx, creativity is all around us. Experiencing the wide variety of art created for public spaces gathered together within the walls of a museum offers visitors a new lens for appreciating and understanding our city’s extraordinary 50-year commitment to public art.”

The exhibit runs from November 10, 2017 through May 13, 2018. Head to the Museum of the City of New York website for more details, or check out some photos below.

Jane Dickson's 1982 artwork "Untitled," part of "Messages to the Public"

Jane Dickson, Untitled, part of Messages to the Public, Times Square, 1982.

Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

Ugo Rondinone's 2013 installation "Human Nature"

Ugo Rondinone, Human Nature, Rockefeller Center, 2013. Presented by Nespresso, Organized by Tishman Speyer and Public Art Fund.

Photograph by Bart Barlow. Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

Subway artwork "Times Square Mural" designed by Roy Lichtenstein,
Times Square Mural (2002) © Roy Lichtenstein, NYCT Times Square-42nd Street Station. Commissioned by MTA Arts & Design.
Courtesy of Museum of the City of New York

Vik Muniz's 2017 subway artwork "Perfect Strangers"

Perfect Strangers (2017) © Vik Muniz, NYCT Second Avenue-72nd Street Station. Commissioned by MTA Arts & Design.

Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Rob Pruitt's 2011 artwork "The Andy Monument"

Rob Pruitt, The Andy Monument, Union Square, 2011.

Photograph by James Ewing. Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

Laurie Hawkinson, Erika Rothenberg, and John Malpede's 2004 artwork "Freedom of Expression National Monument"

Laurie Hawkinson, Erika Rothenberg, and John Malpede, Freedom of Expression National Monument, 2004, Foley Square.

Photo courtesy of Erika Rothenberg

Artist Kara Walker's 2014 work "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby"

At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. A project of Creative Time. Domino Sugar Refinery, Brooklyn, NY, May 10 to July 6, 2014. 

Jason Wyche, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Artwork © 2014 Kara Walker.
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How a London Tragedy Led to the Creation of 911
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Fox Photos/Getty Images

In trouble? Pick up the phone and call 911. According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), 240 million 911 calls are made each year. But if it weren’t for a house fire and a group of angry Brits, the system might not exist today.

Though 911 is an American staple, its origins are in England. In 1935, there was no such thing as an emergency phone number, and phone calls were dependent on operators who connected people to exchanges or emergency services when necessary. England did have emergency fire call points, but they didn’t use telephone technology—instead, they relied on the telegraph, which was used to send a signal to fire departments from special boxes [PDF]. There were police call points, too, but they were generally unstandardized and inefficient, since police didn’t have a way to receive emergency calls while on their beats. Instead, officers would check in during their rounds at special police boxes, like the one you probably recognize from Doctor Who.

But all that changed after November 10, 1935, when a fire broke out at the home of a prominent London surgeon, Philip Franklin, at 27 Wimpole Street. As the blaze tore through the building, five women sleeping on the upper floors—Franklin’s wife and niece, as well as three servants—became trapped. A neighbor, Norman MacDonald, heard their screams and promptly picked up the phone to dial the operator. Nobody answered.

“It seemed entirely futile to continue holding on and listening to ringing tone, which awakened no response,” he later wrote. A neighbor went to a fire call point and firefighters soon arrived, but they were unable to save the five women.

27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
Eden, Janine and Jim, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The tragedy sparked a national inquiry—and outrage. Two years later, London unveiled a new service: the emergency number 999. Officials thought it would be best to choose a number that was easy to find by touch on a rotary dial, and rejected a number of other options, like 111, that might be triggered by equipment malfunctions. (It wasn’t unusual for lines rubbing together and other technical glitches to trigger a 111 call; 222 was already in use by a local exchange, while 000 would have just contacted the operator after the first zero.)

The new number wasn’t immediately embraced. Of over 1000 calls made the first week, nearly 7 percent were pranks. And some members of Parliament objected, saying it would be easier to just install an emergency button on phones instead.

A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images

The United States had a similar system of police telephones and signal boxes, but like the UK it lacked the technology to quickly and effectively call authorities during emergencies. In the 1950s, the National Association of Fire Chiefs, inspired by the UK’s system, requested a national emergency number, and by 1967 the FTC was meeting with AT&T, the nation’s largest telephone company, to hash out a plan.

The first 911 call in the United States—a test call made from a mayor’s office—was made in Haleyville, Alabama in 1968 [PDF]. The numbers 911 reportedly made the grade because they weren’t in use for any existing phone exchange, and were catchy and easily remembered.

As the service rolled out nationwide, police and fire departments struggled to keep up with call volume. Despite the success of the program, New York police, in particular, reported being strained and having to hire more officers.

It took a long time to implement the system. Only 50 percent of the United States had 911 service as of 1987, according to NENA. Today, coverage is still not universal, although it’s close: 96 percent of the country is currently covered.

The evolution of telephone technology has brought new challenges, however: The FCC estimates that a full 70 percent of calls now come from cell phones—and given the mobility of mobile phones, that’s a challenge for dispatchers and phone companies. The 911 system was built for landlines, and cell phone GPS systems don’t always transmit data quickly or accurately. Plus, the proliferation of cell phones has led to a spike in accidental butt dials, which tie up the line and can prevent real emergencies from getting the attention they need. Still, we've come a long way from the days of sending telegraph messages inside boxes.


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